Everything. Films Reviewed: 12 Years a Slave, The Motherload, Starred up.

Posted in African-Americans, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Movies, Prison, Slavery, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 2, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Welcome to an icy cold 2014! People tend to think in big terms with the New Year. They hope everything will improve. So, this week I’m looking at an historical drama about a man who loses everything, a documentary about women who want everything, and a prison drama about a guy with nothing to lose.

DF_02828.CR212 Years a Slave

Dir: Steve McQueen

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a nice, middle-class guy in mid-nineteenth century America. He’s a professional (plays the violin) owns a home, is married with children and is an upstanding member of his community in New York state. And he’s black.

So when he’s offered a well-paying gig in Washington DC, he can’t resist and follows the recruiters south. But soon after, he finds himself kidnapped, thrown into a bare cell and beaten. His captors strip him of his fine clothes, his family, his dignity, his status, and even his name. Based solely on the colour of his skin, he’s sold as a slave. A slave!

He’s no longer considered a human being, now he’s just chattel.DF-02238.CR2

And so begins his nightmare. The movie follows the next twelve years (it’s based on Northup’s own memoirs) as he is sold to various southern plantation owners. Some are relatively kind and humane, some monstrously cruel, but none consider that it is fundamentally wrong for one man to own another. He sees slaves being beaten, tortured, raped or even murdered at their owner’s whim. None of this is against the law. They have no rights, no legal standing, no recourse to justice.

On the way, he acquires a violin (from a kindly slave owner). But far from lightening his burden, music is shown as part of the whole slave system. Slaves driven to sing to a pounding drum as they pick cotton. And in one of the most painful scenes in the movie, he has to play ditties on his fiddle as the others are forced to perform grotesque high-stepping cake-walks to entertainer the planters.

Work is a constant danger. If he politely corrects an error or suggests a more efficient alternative he risks being beaten or lynched.

DF-03057.CR2 DF-03057.CR2At a cotton plantation he meets a pretty young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She is the fastest worker in the cotton fields (most of the rest got flogged each day for not picking enough). She’s also a “favourite” of Epps, a cruel plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and a captive to his wishes. But Patsey has to fear equally Epp’s, wife who has it in for her. Solomon observes it all.

Gradually they grind down his pride until he too walks hunched over, never looking a white man in the eyes. Will Solomon ever escape from this hell? And if so, how? And can he grant Patsey request to save her from her hopeless existence?

This is a great film, and you should definitely see it if you haven’t already. It’s painful, shocking, realistic and explicit. It gives a new visual meaning to slavery in most people’s minds. It’s also a tense but satisfying thriller about rescue and escape. Ejiofor and N’yongo are both amazing, as is director McQueen’s usual leading man Fassbender. It won the TIFF People’s Choice award and hopefully many others.

motherload_2The Motherload

Dir: Cornelia Principe

Some recent books and articles ask “why can’t women have it all?” The “all” being a top job combined with raising kids. Anne-Marie Slaughter (policy advisor to Hillary Clinton) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, COO) both wondered if woman can achieve both of these goals. Why aren’t women allowed the same opportunities to succeed as men?

These works received a lot of criticism. Is evening-out  the playing field in the top 1%  really the goal of feminism? And why should success be viewed in an acquisitive context of greed and possessiveness?

motherload slaughter-4

This documentary avoids some of these problems by looking at a broader range of subjects. In addition to the super-rich and powerful, it also shows middle-class women and one single mother with two jobs. It points out that paternity leave (in Canada, it’s routine only in Quebec) would help even out the discrepancies in the division of work by sex. And it shows how some motherload_1families are thinking about redistributing roles.

The Motherload is an interesting doc dealing with a broad topic in less than an hour. And director Principe, who also produced the fantastic doc The World Before Her, clearly knows her stuff. Still, I’m a bit surprised that it never even touches on the issue of public daycare. While perhaps not an issue for CEOs, isn’t affordable daycare the crucial step in allowing mothers to work and raise children simultaneously?

And finally, I want to mention a fantastic movie — a sleeper that played at TIFF13 – that I really hope will open later this year in Canada. It’s called

starredup_01Starred Up

Dir: David MacKenzie

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is an 18 year old who’s been “starred up”. That means he’s sent direct from juvie to a real, live adult prison. He seems at first like a vulnerable kid who’s going to die on his first day there. But things aren’t what they seem. His street smarts and prison savvy keep him safe but his high starredup_04threshold for brutal violence and volatile temper could prove to be his undoing. So he joins a special therapy group within the prison walls to help him handle his anger. But he keeps running into trouble with an older, “head” prisoner called Neville (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). Neville keeps taking charge, instead of discussing and compromising. And here’s the twist – Neville is Eric’s real-live father serving a life sentence! O’Connell and Mendelsohn give unbelievably dynamic performances as the fractious father and son. This is a fantastic movie – look out for it.

12 Years a Slave is now playing in Toronto, The Motherload will air on CBC TV’s Doc Zone next Thursday, and Starred Up should open in 2014. Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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